A migrant farm worker lies on a dirty floor, sleeping on a bunch of soiled clothing that is doubling for a mattress. He seems exhausted in the dark dingy room. Here and there, paper bags holding belongings lie near by. His brother, Enrique Rodriguez, a migrant worker all his life, continues the tour of his home that he rents for approximately $425 a month.
“We pay so much, and the landlord does not want to fix anything. Look over here– come on,” says Rodriguez angrily.
The kitchen, which is beyond the tiny living room that is covered in darkness except for a shaft of light coming from the open front door, also has corners filled with belongs lying on the dark brown floor. It is cold and already chilly inside, and it is only 4 p.m. as the sun is quickly going down.
In the kitchen, a dim bulb lights the small 10-ft by 15-ft space. The 64-year-old farm worker points to the stove that is encrusted with soil and grease. It has no knobs. He complains that it is dangerous and has told the landlord about it repeatedly. Near by, a dented aluminum pot holds rice, which will be dinner.
Rodriguez completes the tour by showing the main event: the bathroom, which has leaking fixtures. The bathtub has a steady stream of liquid going down a crusty drain.
“I am a good man that has led a good life and never done any bad or criminal things. I just want to live in a better place. I pay my rent on time,” Rodriguez waves his hands in the air in exasperation.
Outside, his roommate, Andres Jimenez, also a farm worker, sits in a rickety chair clutching his face. He explains that he hurt his eye while working. He is being treated for his injury but still can’t see. Suddenly the pain becomes overwhelming, and he starts to cry, saying in between sobs that he is worried he may never see again. Rudolfo Rios, who also lives in the apartment complex, tries to comfort him.
Rios, who has also worked all his life as a migrant laborer, and was also a bracero, also has little to show for his hard work. His weather-beaten face and worn, knarled hands catch the last rays of the sun as he comforts his friend.
The three farm workers huddle together as a gust of cold north wind tears at their frail bodies clothed in dingy, tattered sweatshirts. The sun is quickly going down as another cold November night begins in the Yuba-Sutter area with temperature lows forecast to be in the 30s.The plight of the three farm workers could easily be an excerpt from the John Steinbeck chronicle of migrant farm workers during the 1930s. The major difference is that it is not 1932 but 2002, yet many migrants are still suffering the same hardships and poverty that were described in Steinbeck’s work.
Edgar Diaz, a 74-year-old farm worker, who has labored all of his in the fields and who now dedicates his time to advocating farm worker rights, sees similar situations frequently. Many farm workers, according to Diaz, are not informed about programs that could help them and suffer from a variety of maladies, often the result of pesticide exposure or work-related injuries that could be treated.
Statistical data confirms Diaz’s observations. According to findings by The Center for Disease Control, farm workers live an average of 42 years, compared to 72 for men and 75 for women of the general population.
Diaz is adamant that much still needs to be addressed regarding agricultural workers and their families, especially the lack of health insurance and economic opportunities.
Yuba College students Adalberto and Gerardo Mojica would agree with Diaz that much has to be done on both fronts. Both have attended Yuba College, and both have worked in the fields.
Adalberto Mojica bristles with anger that his father, working since the 1970s, has no retirement benefits or stable work history because of the migratory labor he has been involved in over the years– even though he has never stopped working.
Gerardo Mojica, who worked in the summer in the fields and on the weekends but attended school during the week, also is bothered by the shoddy treatment of migrant workers.
“We would pick Asian pears, apples, peaches, prunes and olives, which were the hardest to harvest. The farmers would always try to short-change you too on the pay– mix up the bins or how many,” said Mojica.
In recent years, Gerardo Mojica and his brother have made the transition to college, thanks to The Adelante Program and The Migrant Education Program.
With this assistance has come steady employment and both brothers have jointly purchased a house for their parents, of whom both brothers are fiercely proud and whom they admire for their sacrifices.
“I want people to know that migrant farm workers still receive a lot of racism. A lot of people see them as dirty, grungy Mexicans, but those dirty, grungy Mexicans are helping put food on our table,” said Gerardo Mojica impassionately.